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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1404

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Alison Brown: Stolen Moments
by George Graham

(Compass Records 4400 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/11/2005)

Thanks to Béla Fleck and cohorts like his mentor Tony Trischka, the five-string banjo has been liberated from the confines of bluegrass to enter the realms of musical eclecticism as wide-ranging as any instrument. A banjo playing styles from jazz to world music is no longer such a novelty. And for the most part, the current generation of banjo innovators are putting their new found freedom to good use. People like Scott Vestal, Tony Furtado and Slavek Hanzlik have been creating music that further expands the vocabulary for an instrument with a long-running reputation for limited range of expression and dynamics.

Another of the bright lights on the banjo scene is Alison Brown, whose latest CD is called Stolen Moments.

Alison Brown has a story almost as fascinating as her music. One of the few women on the eclectic banjo scene, she took up the instrument at an early age, performing in Southern California bands with future Nashville Bluegrass Band fiddler Stuart Duncan. However, Ms. Brown decided to pursue a career in the financial world. She attended Harvard, won her MBA and became a successful investment banker. But she also could not resist the call of music. She toured with Michelle Shocked and Alison Krauss, recorded a couple of albums for Vanguard Records, and eventually decided to channel both her musical and business skills into starting a record label. Ms. Brown and her husband Garry West founded Compass Records in Nashville in 1995, and it has become one of the finest independent labels around, having released over 200 titles in that period, including bluegrass and New Acoustic, Celtic, singer-songwriter recordings and jazzy material. Ms. Brown also keeps her hand in academe, having been a guest speaker at the Harvard Business School, and serving as Adjunct Professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Music.

As a banjo player, Ms. Brown's approach is more as member of the ensemble than the consistent front person, and is a little more reticent to show off her virtuosity than others, but her work has always been marked by a combination of good taste and creative arrangements. And with a piano being a consistent part of her regular band, her music does have a jazzier texture much of the time.

Ms. Brown said that the CD's title Stolen Moments, though the same as a famous jazz composition by Oliver Nelson, was in fact about her situation as the CD was coming together. She became a mother and during the recording, and she was balancing changing diapers with running the record company, and dashing into the studio to record a take here and there. Nevertheless, despite the method of stealing moments to work on the record when she could, she says she is quite pleased with the results. I would definitely agree with that. It's wonderfully eclectic and yet accessible, with a number of easy-going tunes, along with some covers of Baby-Boomer songs by Simon & Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix.

She is joined by a fine cast of musical characters, including her husband Garry West on the bass, plus Stuart Duncan on fiddle, New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush on mandolin, ubiquitous Nashville drummer Kenny Malone, and from Ireland former Solas member John Doyle on guitar. There is also a guest appearance by Solas founder Sean Egan. On piano throughout is John R. Burr, who has been a regular part of Ms. Brown's band. While most of the CD is instrumental, there are also some vocal guests, including the two Indigo Girls, singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman and fiddler player and vocalist Andrea Zonn. Ms. Zonn, Ms. Brown and Ms. Chapman also perform as the Boomchicks and they reassemble the group for a track on this CD. The result is a recording that runs from Celtic to jazz, sometimes at the same time, as well as including some bluegrass along with the interesting treatments of the 1960s cover tunes.

The CD opens with an original piece called The Sound of Summer Running. It's in the now fairly familiar sound of so-called New Acoustic music with Stuart Duncan on fiddle, though with the piano and drums in the band, there is an even more jazzy texture than usual for the genre. <<>>

Also in the New Acoustic mode is The Magnificent Seven, which Ms. Brown wrote with guitarist John Doyle. The "seven" in the title is a reference to the seven-beat meter of the main theme. It's a highlight of the album <<>>

The first of the vocals is Homeward Bound, the old Simon & Garfunkel song. It features Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, providing their own approach to the vocal harmonies. It's interesting hearing the song in this kind of context with the bluegrass instrumentation, but I don't think that Ms. Brown and company were as adventurous as they could have been. The performance has enough of a similar approach to the original that it invites comparison, rather than re-defining the song. <<>>

One of the more interesting of the instrumental pieces is Carrowkeel, which was based on a Gregorian chant. It's done as a waltz and includes both Seamus Egan's Irish-sounding pennywhistle as well as the distinctly jazzy piano of John R. Burr. <<>>

The other cover of a 1960s song is Jimi Hendrix' Angel, with Beth Nielsen Chapman doing the vocal. This time the approach is kind of mellow Nashville, and again doesn't take the song very far in any kind of a new direction. In fact, for me, it's about the only disappointment on the CD. <<>>

Another vocal track is the traditional British Isles folk song One Morning in May. Andrea Zonn does the vocal, as well as the fiddle. This time, the Nashville-influenced performance works well. <<>>

The instrumental showpiece on the CD is a medley called I'm Naked and I'm Going to Glasgow. It starts with the traditional jig The Grey Goose <<>> before going into three original reels in the style. This is one place the band gets to show off its abundant virtuosity. <<>>

The CD ends with Musette for a Palindrome, a trio with Ms. Brown's banjo, the mandolin of Mike Marshall, and Kenny Malone on percussion. It's a charming piece featuring some outstanding musicianship. <<>>

Banjoist Alison Brown's new CD Stolen Moments is an enjoyable recording that continues to expand the vocabulary of the banjo. Ms. Brown's music is a little more easy-going and definitely more acoustic than that of Béla Fleck's Flecktones. It's also often more straight straight-ahead jazzy. But Ms. Brown and her blue-chip band nicely mix styles and combine first-rate original pieces with covers of familiar songs. It's a quite enjoyable album that will definitely please fans of New Acoustic music.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instruments are nicely captured, and the mix keeps everything audible and in just the right perspective. Dynamic range is better than average for current CDs, but not quite at audiophile level.

Banjo players were often the subject of musician jokes. But a new generation of pickers has changed all of that. And Alison Brown's Stolen Moments is another reminder of what can be achieved with a happy combination of virtuosity and imagination.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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